Designer investigates the power of information visualisation

Australia’s waste problem is the subject of Joanna Stirling’s current research project, which explores how design and visual thinking can be used to communicate complex issues and instigate change.

The Modern Midden, which is showing at the Innovation Campus between 26 September and 23 October, is an installation of sorts, designed to get us thinking about how we might act to reduce our dependence on materials that aren’t biodegradable. The installation is the creative component of Ms Stirling’s Masters by Research; the written component looks at behaviour change, design and visualisation, how we think about household waste and how it is currently visualised.

Waste is generally measured by weight, but weight is harder to visualise than volume, according to Ms Stirling. Hence her decision to shape seven days’ worth of non-organic waste from 10 households into a mound in the middle of a room for people to see and touch.

“As a designer, I want to find ways of communicating complex issues and ideas and this has required a spatial and participatory approach.

“We put our waste in the bin, it goes out for collection and is taken away in a truck. Most of us, it seems, don’t know where that truck goes or consider what happens to the contents of the red or yellow bin. Putting physical bodies in the same room as the items we often have fleeting contact with slow things down so we can consider where the items might have been, what they are made from, and what was inside of them. It opens up a space for dialogue.”

Ms Stirling’s installation is just a small part of a big story about waste: Australians are the second highest producers of waste per person globally and the estimated 900-plus landfill sites currently operating across Australia are filling up with the items we freely discard each day.

“In Australia, a huge amount of our waste goes to landfill. That’s an issue because we’re running out of room and consumption and waste generation are having extensive environmental impacts.”

While Australians are recycling more than ever before, our overall consumption of materials – recyclable and non-recyclable – is increasing.

“We often don’t consider the embodied energy that goes into making these products in the first place. All of this ‘stuff ‘ has been on a long journey. A plastic bottle, for example, is made using oil and gas, water and electricity, it’s then transported, filled with liquid and transported again before it reaches us. We use it for a short period of time and then throw it back into the system – to be recycled, (which is also a resource intensive process), or to end up as landfill.”

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